The hard and software needed must be put in place even if the government has to go for facilities such as loans to achieve such. Online education may take some resources now, but the beauty of it is that, in the long run, it will pay off. It can even be cheaper than analogue learning. We never made the needed provision for e-learning to maximally gain from it; but now it is like we want to reap where we did not sow. For one, lecturers training for online teaching and testing as well as module development by instructional technologists are also paramount if we are to get it right.
In mapping out an effective delivery of online education, the Federal Ministry of Education may need to take a look at some of the steps taken by other countries in the South African region, Asia, Europe, and South or North America when COVID-19 forced all governments to close schools. The Chinese example readily comes to mind. I must hasten to add that I am not unaware of the general sentiment about China with respect to the Covid-19 pandemic and the conspiracy theory. The idea here is, therefore, not by any stretch of the imagination, to project China especially at this time, or impose the Chinese concept on our system. Yet, there will surely be one or two fundamental things too, at least, to adapt from the country’s experience. To illustrate this, the story was told of a teacher who informed his students largely populated by teenagers that there is always something good about everyone and everything. A student then asked him what is good about the devil to which he responded: consistency.
China was as agitated as we are now when the virus first struck it and had to send its students home. Here is a country that, as of 2018, boasted 518, 800 schools at all levels, 16,728, 500 full-time teachers, and 276 million students. The figure is according to its education ministry. Realizing that there was a need for a well-defined and coordinated approach, it strengthened its National Public Service Platform for Educational Resources. We need a unit, if not an agency, in this realm.
Apart from providing appropriate learning resources during the emergency, the Chinese education ministry worked with enterprises to provide tools needed for effective e-learning. For instance, NetDragon, a top company in building internet communities, deployed its platform, One-Stop Online, to provide free live streaming of courses to over 10 million users. In addition, China enjoys the Alibaba-powered DingTalk, which, among others, provides free access to online conferencing for teachers, principals, and other managers. As documented in Handbook on Facilitating Flexible Learning During Educational Disruptions: The Chinese Experience in Maintaining Undisrupted Learning During COVID-19 Outbreak, the Chinese Ministry of Education worked with some 22 online platforms for all levels of schools. In Nigeria, the federal and state governments should appreciate the need for such strategic partnerships too towards making e-learning a robust reality in our clime.
Indeed, the Government should, as a matter of necessity and urgency, provide special funding and mobilize support from entrepreneurial and other institutions to provide tools and services that will power strategies for online education. For instance, smartboards should urgently be made available in our higher institutions. And since only very little or nothing can be achieved without an extensive and reliable telecom network, this is a time to encourage our providers to make special provisions for the e-learning experience. This is what the like of Alibaba did in China. Both the authorities and the schools need to guarantee the core elements that support undisrupted learning despite disrupted classes, borrowing one of the slogans that drove the Asian giant’s passion. These include reliable communication infrastructure, suitable digital learning resources, friendly learning tools, effective learning methods, instructional organizations, effective support services for students and teachers as well as close cooperation between government, enterprises, and schools. It is the availability of these that will give life to whatever strategies the universities and other higher institutions want to adopt.
It can be argued that this is an emergency time in which we don’t have to get everything right and available before we can jumpstart e-learning. Yes, a good argument. Even, China, as sophisticated as its technology is, suffered setbacks or contradictions in the past four months, with a New York Times report detailing how many of its rural areas and poor folks have been literally cut off from the reach of online education due to lack of access to the internet and other components of social communication – including phones (for students). So, this is not a time to insist everything must be Eldorado-ready before tertiary institutions can do the needful of online education. Yet, there are some basic provisions that must be made to achieve minimal results.
I believe one thing the government should do is to see the need to provide quality online education for our children locked down at home as an essential service now. As a result, it should guarantee the sector urgent special funding to provide essential hard and software, including internet wherewithal. If the government is soliciting funds to tackle coronavirus, it should consider the desired e-learning as part of the things it needs to urgently also invest in. As a matter of fact, there is nothing wrong with consulting or cultivating those countries where online education has been inspiringly deployed.
Lecturers and school authorities have the duty to develop strategies they consider relevant for this trying season. Available resources and tools are key and may not be immediately within their control, yet it is a time to be proactive and think not just out of the box, but without the box. How simple and clearly structured are our methods for e-learning? Is there an economy of contents and time? Is there a well-designed and timely feedback system? Are assignments to be given weekly or how periodically? By the way, have the universities, polytechnics, and colleges of education ascertained the e-readiness of the tutors and organized for their training where necessary? What this means is that for us to deliver reliable online education, the government, enterprise, and higher institutions must be ready to play a role. Of course, parents too have a great role to play here. The reality is that e-learning imposes on them the added burden of having to provide beyond school fees. For students to enjoy virtual education, there has to be power, internet facility, and hardware such as laptops and good phones, with the parents, guardians, governments, and philanthropists having to be there for learners in making such available.
Generally speaking, this is the time for Nigeria to rethink and reconfigure its entire educational system. Beyond e-learning, we need an education system that develops the thinking capacity of students. We need the one that can make beneficiaries easily adapt to situations and anticipate eventualities. Disruptions will sometimes come, whether locally, nationally, or internationally. It could be a natural disaster or pandemic like the COVID-19, it can be political or economic. In Nigeria, the dominant educational system that feeds our children with usually monolithic theories are not helping matters and will not help us the day the unwanted guest comes.
Professor Salami is the Vice-Chancellor, First Technical University (Tech-U), Ibadan.